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"VICTORIA?" MAMA'S EYES SHONE WITH LOVE as she stepped away from the Christmas tree we'd placed in the corner of our small sitting room. "Are ya almost done with that string? I'm just about ready for it."
Jumping to my feet, my face flushed with pride, I placed the long rope of cranberries and popcorn I'd created into her outstretched hand. "I'm finished!"
"Oh, Victoria! It's perfect!" Standing on tiptoes, Mama placed one end near the top of the Douglas fir Daddy had brought home the previous week. After some time, she stepped back and assessed her work through narrowed eyes.
"It fits!" I said.
"Of course it does!" Mama smiled. "You did a nice job, baby girl."
Singing a familiar Christmas carol, she again stood on tiptoes and adjusted a glass ornament of a red cardinal. Though I didn't know the words to her song, I hummed along with her, mimicking her every motion.
Though the tree looked perfect to my young eyes, Mama continued her circle around its circumference, adjusting an ornament here and the rope of cranberries there, taking care not to knock it over. Sadly, at nearly eight months pregnant, it was an impossible task. In slow motion, I watched our tree tilt, first to a forty-five degree angle, then topple to the floor.
I giggled at Mama's surprised screech.
Thrusting her hands on her hips, she bit her bottom lip to hide a smile. "And what do you find so amusing, young lady?"
"Mama!" I gasped between giggles. "Your tummy is huge! Are ya sure there's only one baby in there?"
Lifting an eyebrow, she reached down and heaved our tree upright. "Yes, Miss Smarty Pants. Just one baby, thank you very much!"
"It's so big, though! Will it be here for Christmas?"
"Oh, I hardly think so. He needs a bit longer to grow and get stronger. Six or eight weeks more, I think."
"How can ya be sure there's only one? Jeannie Herrick's dog had puppies, and there were nine in there! There could be at least two, couldn't there?"
"Not likely," she laughed.
Mama snapped a broken branch from the tree then stepped close once again and straightened two more ornaments, but left the tree leaning visibly to the left side. Stepping back now, she nodded. "Well, it's not perfect by everyone's standards, but it's perfect for us."
"Perfect for us," I agreed.
Together, Mama and I admired our tree. In addition to the missing branch and the noticeable lean, it was flatter on one side; but it was the perfection of those imperfections that has stayed with me these many years. We snuggled together in Mama's favorite rocking chair as she picked up the strains of the forgotten carol. Christmas was only a week away.
THAT CHRISTMAS IN 1913 was my last with Mama and Daddy. At only eight, I knew nothing about death and hardship. I knew nothing beyond the love of my two parents.
I don't remember much about Mama and Daddy before that Christmas. What I remember most was a beautiful couple, deeply in love. I remember my mother had the most beautiful fiery-red hair. She and I sat for hours each day as I brushed through its long length. Each strand slid through my fingers like grains of fresh-cut wheat during harvest season. Almost too beautiful to touch, it appeared electric in the sunlight. Each downward stroke awakened her fragrance, cocooning us in the scent of vanilla. Always vanilla. Not overpowering, just a subtle reminder of long hours spent in the kitchen baking for Daddy and me. To this day, the smell of vanilla reminds me of her love.
More than anything, perhaps, I remember the sound of Mama's voice. Our home was always filled with the music of her laughter, the cheerful cadence of her voice in conversation, and the sweet melody of whatever song was escaping through her soul. I remember her moving around our home, her voice lifted in song to keep her company while she worked. Mama's voice was the sound of love and happiness. Hers was the first voice I heard upon waking in the morning, and the last I heard before closing my eyes at night. Mama was everything in the world I'd hoped to be, and nothing I would ever become.
Daddy had been energetic and fun. His job with the Rock Island Railroad kept him away from home about as often as he was with us, but I remember him playing his banjo while Mama and I danced around his feet after dinner. Though quick to smile, he was more reserved than Mama. He spoke when spoken to, but was perfectly content listening to Mama carry the conversation. I still remember the love in his gaze as he looked upon her, as if she were the center of his universe.
Daddy was a strong, robust man with eyes the color of a blue Oklahoma sky on a clear day. His golden-blond hair was wavy and, though always trimmed neatly, a small piece constantly worked its way out of its neat combing to hang over his right eye. Mama was forever threatening to take a pair of scissors to that wayward lock. Daddy and I would just grin, sharing our secret knowledge that Mama didn't really mean it. We both knew she loved that rogue strand almost as much as she loved Daddy.
Mama and Daddy were everything I had in the world. They came to each other without families, insisting they had become each other's family when they married. Both only children, Daddy's parents had died long before I was born; and Mama's family had promptly disowned her when she defied them to marry my daddy. With nothing to keep them in St. Louis, they relocated to Oklahoma to begin their new life. Mama never regretted it. She'd told me often that all we needed was love and each other. She was wrong. I needed my own family. Losing Mama and Daddy would leave me orphaned and completely alone in the world.
SITTING DOWN TO dinner that night, I was confused at Mama's quiet demeanor. Always a blur of movement, her laughter had been a constant in our home. That evening, she was strangely quiet — her discomfort evident by the taut grimace of her lips, and the dimness of her normally bright green eyes. I thought little of it at the time. She'd frequently suffered contractions from false labor and, though painful, Dr. Heusman had assured us it was normal.
"How much longer 'til Santa comes?" I asked, hoping to distract her from her discomfort.
"Now, that's at least the twelfth time you've asked today." Mama smiled. "Seven more days."
"Will Daddy be home in time?"
"Yes. In fact, I expect him in another day or two."
"Can I stay up late to see Santa? George Holly said he's not real. He's a big fat liar. This year I'm gonna prove it to him!"
"Ya know ya can't, Victoria. Santa skips the houses where the children aren't sleeping."
"But ... is he real?"
"He's real if you believe in him, sweetheart. What do you think?"
"Oh, I definitely believe in him!"
"Then there ya go." Mama smiled, but it didn't quite reach her eyes.
Silence descended upon us, and I could feel the thickness in the air. "What's wrong, Mama?"
"Nothin', sweetheart. I'm just a little tired is all."
As we collected the dinner dishes that night, Mama moved at an unusually sluggish pace. Each step was carefully placed, one foot in front of the other, as though crossing over a layer of thin ice. I studied her covertly for the longest time, noticing how she caressed her extended belly and her occasional wince of discomfort. Was the baby kicking? Was Mama soothing away pain? I could never tell, and she never complained. Her only explanation was to say she'd "overdone it that day."
Drying the last dish, Mama turned to me, her lips tilted in a tired smile. "Victoria, I think we're gonna call it an early night. Why don'tcha take that book we've been reading together and see how much of it you can get through on your own before bed?"
"But ya always read to me," I whined.
"I know, darlin', but I'm not feelin' well so I'm gonna turn in early. You're a good reader — take your book with you and read it to yourself for awhile. But not too long — it's almost bedtime. Only six more sleeps until Christmas." Smiling, she ruffled my hair to soften the disappointment of her directive.
"Okay, Mama." I reached my arms around her large stomach in my ritual goodnight hug. "I love you."
"I love you, too, baby. Goodnight."
Back in my room, I had no patience for reading. Giving up, I placed my book on the bedside table, and turned out the light. Within moments, I was sleeping soundly.CHAPTER 2
THE NEXT MORNING, I WAS AWAKENED BY A strange sound; almost like that of a mewling kitten. Listening intently, I tried to puzzle through the sound that had awakened me. Impatient, I crawled out of bed and tiptoed down the hall until I found myself standing in front of Mama's open bedroom door.
"Victoria?" Mama's voice was barely a whisper.
I approached her and found her lying on her side with her eyes closed. If not for her flushed cheeks and sweat-matted hair, she might've been sleeping.
"Mama?" I touched her fevered cheek. "Are ya okay? Can I get you some water?"
"No, darlin'. But I need you to be my big girl and help me, okay?"
"Okay, Mama. What can I do?"
"Go find Dr. Heusman. D'ya remember where he lives?"
"Yes, ma'am," I whispered. "What do I say?"
"Just fetch him, and tell him to come quickly. Tell him the baby's comin', and it's too soon. Can ya do that?"
"Yes, ma'am. You'll be okay while I'm gone? You look really sick."
"Oh, honey, I'm okay. Don't you worry none about me. Women have babies all the time. Now go find Dr. Heusman — and put on some warm clothes first. It's cold out there."
"Yes, ma'am," I said, racing out of the room.
Still in my nightclothes, I paused to throw Mama's wool cloak over my shoulders and step into her too-large boots in my bare feet. Racing into the street, my feet crunched on the fresh snow that had fallen the night before. On another day, I might've stopped to enjoy the beauty. That morning, I needed to find Dr. Heusman.
I ran every step of the three blocks to Dr. Heusman's house, only slipping twice on the slick sidewalks. Before I even reached the front door, though, I knew: he wasn't home. The windows were darkened with no light shining from within. A blanket of untouched snow surrounded the house, proving my theory. If Dr. Heusman were home, his boys would surely have stomped through the yard in a quest to build a snowman or beat each other in a snowball fight. Hoping I was wrong, I leaped onto the porch and banged on the front door.
"Dr. Heusman! Dr. Heusman!" I banged my fists until they ached with pain. "Dr. Heusman!"
I crept around the side of the house and peeked through the windows.
"Victoria Hastings!" The crotchety voice of old Mrs. Simmons, the town librarian, called out from across the street. "What in the world are ya doin', child? Dr. Heusman ain't home — can't ya see that? You're fixin' to wake the whole neighborhood with that terrible racket! Now what is it ya need, young lady?"
"Mrs. Simmons!" I cried. "My mama's not feelin' good, and she told me to fetch Dr. Heusman. I think she's havin' the baby!"
"Ah honey, she'll be alright. Women have babies all the time. Dr. Heusman's in Oklahoma City visiting Mrs. Heusman's people for Christmas."
"But Mama needs a doctor! What am I gonna do?"
"Don't you worry, child. She just needs a good midwife. Go on over and fetch Mrs. Kirk. She'll help ya out. She lives right down from Lincoln School. D'ya know which house is hers?"
"Then go on and fetch her. Tell her I told ya to, and that your mama needs help bringin' a baby. She's as good as any doctor, and probably better. Women are always better at bringin' babies anyhow, so don'tcha worry none. Now get goin'."
"Yes, ma'am! Thank you!" I called behind me.
"Don't you go a-thankin' me. You just let your mama know I wanna see that baby as soon as she's up and around!"
"Yes ma'am, I will!" I shouted as I raced through the street toward Mrs. Kirk's house.
By the time I arrived, my face and lips were numb from the cold. Jumping the steps onto the porch, I banged on her front door. "Mrs. Kirk! Mrs. Kirk! Please open up!"
The front door opened so quickly my raised fist failed to connect with the door, and I stumbled forward into Mrs. Kirk's solid arms.
"Victoria Hastings!" she gasped, steadying me. "What in the world's goin' on, child?"
"Mrs. Kirk!" I said, catching my breath. "I need ya to come with me. Dr. Heusman's gone, and my mama's havin' the baby. She says it's too soon. Mrs. Simmons said to fetch you and that you'd do a better job than Dr. Heusman anyhow on account of you bein' a woman and all! Will you please come and help my mama?"
"Okay, Victoria ... slow down a second. Everything'll be alright." Mrs. Kirk ushered me into her home. "Let me get a couple things together, and we'll go, okay?"
I nodded — I was too out of breath to say more.
"Julianne," Mrs. Kirk turned to an older girl with beautiful long, golden hair. "I'm goin' with Victoria to see about her mama, and I want ya to look after Jacob while I'm gone. Your daddy oughta be back soon but, if he's not, feed Jacob some of that leftover ham for lunch. Tell Daddy I'll be home as soon as I can."
"Yes, ma'am," the girl said.
"Now, Victoria," Mrs. Kirk turned to me. "You sit tight for a quick second while I get my things together. Have ya had breakfast?"
"Yes ma'am," I lied.
"Okay, then. Just one more minute and we'll go." She nodded, then left the room in search of whatever necessities she'd need.
Waiting for Mrs. Kirk, I tapped my foot. It wasn't that I meant to be rude; I was really worried about Mama. I needed to get home. The second Mrs. Kirk returned, I nearly bolted out the door in my anxiousness.
"Victoria," she scolded. "Please slow down. These sidewalks are slick, and I'm not gonna get there any faster if I fall and twist my ankle. Your mama will be okay. I've helped bring dozens of babies with no problems."
I slowed my step to match Mrs. Kirk's slower stride, but inside I was an anxious wreck. So much time had passed since I'd left to find Dr. Heusman, and I didn't want Mama worried about me. More than that, I didn't know what bringing a baby entailed. The only thing I knew was I needed to get back to Mama. Reaching our house, I opened the door and raced inside. As quickly as I could, I removed Mama's wool cloak and boots, taking a moment to put them away properly. Though I was in a terrible hurry, I didn't want to make Mama unhappy with my carelessness.
Following my lead, Mrs. Kirk found a peg by the door for her cloak; then stomped her feet on the woven rug in the foyer, removing the excess snow from her boots. Taking her hand, I led her to Mama's bedroom where we found her in much the same way I had left her — her cheeks still flushed, her eyes closed, and her damp hair stuck to the sides of her head.
"Mama?" I whispered.
"Did ya find Dr. Heusman, baby?" She asked without opening her eyes.
"No, ma'am, but I brought Mrs. Kirk instead. Dr. Heusman's in Oklahoma City."
Mama opened her eyes. "Elizabeth — thank you for coming."
"Now, Anna. Ya know better than to thank me for comin'." Mrs. Kirk smiled then turned her attention to me. "Victoria, see if you can find me a big pot like your mama uses to make turkey soup. Fill it with water and put it on the stove to boil; then bring me some clean sheets and towels. I'm just gonna sit here and talk to your mama for a bit."
"Yes, ma'am," I responded, relieved to have another adult in the house.
Leaving the women to converse, I set off to do as I'd been asked. Mrs. Kirk would make everything alright. I just knew it!
The water was boiling steadily when Mrs. Kirk joined me in the kitchen. "Thank you, Victoria," she said, removing the pot from the fire. "I'll take care of things from here. Now you be a big girl and play quietly in your bedroom, okay? Your mama and I are gonna be busy, and I need ya to stay outta the way unless I call you. Can ya do that for me?"
I nodded and headed obediently toward my bedroom.
THE NEXT SEVERAL hours were the longest I'd ever lived through. I'd tried reading, but the words ran together, and I couldn't remember a single word.
The grandfather clock chimed from the living room, reminding me I'd missed lunch. It was now dinnertime, but I was too scared to bother Mama and Mrs. Kirk; so instead, I listened to the indistinct chatter of the two women in the master bedroom. Not loud enough to hear their words, their voices were calm and left me reassured everything would be okay. With nothing left to entertain myself, I crawled into bed and pulled my blankets high over the top of my head. My stomach growled, but I soon drifted off to sleep.
SOME HOURS LATER, Mama's high-pitched scream startled me from a deep sleep. Rubbing my eyes, I adjusted my vision in the darkened bedroom. Confused, I pulled back my curtains and discovered night had fallen. My stomach grumbled, but my hunger was forgotten as another scream pierced the silence. Without thought, I stumbled out of my room and raced to Mama's bedroom.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Edge of Nowhere"
Copyright © 2019 Catherine H. Armstrong.
Excerpted by permission of Central Avenue Marketing Ltd..
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